Better Boundaries wants to find a way to redraw Utah
February 11, 2018
This year, there are six proposed ballot measures vying for Utahns' signatures. One of them is Better Boundaries, an initiative to reform the way Utah draws its state and Congressional legislative districts.
Currently, Utah's redistricting process is handled by political incumbents in the State Legislature, the majority of whom are Republican. Better Boundaries is proposing the "Utah Independent Redistricting Commission and Standards Act," which would make Utah the second state to adopt a nonpartisan, independent redistricting commission. A bipartisan group has lined up behind the petition, and hopes to get the required number of signatures by the April 15 deadline in order to be placed on the general election ballot this fall.
If the measure were to pass in November, it would establish a seven-member independent redistricting commission that would meet publicly in different areas of the state. Members of the commission would be appointed by the governor and state legislative leaders, and two of the appointed commissioners would be unaffiliated with state political parties. Five of the seven must vote in favor of a redistricting map for it to pass.
According to the online political encyclopedia Ballotpedia, Utah would be the seventh state to adopt such a commission for state district boundaries.
Jill Lesh, who leads the initiative's Summit County efforts, said she believes the presence of the commission would enable more voter engagement.
"Having areas broken up means that we do not have a (single) voice for that community. … That means that the representatives are often not as responsive because they don't have a single area group," Lesh said.
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In the 2016 general election, Summit County, driven by voters in Park City and the Snyderville Basin, swung Democratic, voting for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump for president and for Peter C. Clemens over Rob Bishop for U.S. Representative. However, at the state and federal level, Park City and the Snyderville Basin are almost exclusively represented by Republicans. Rep. Brian S. King is the lone Democrat in the group. His district occupies part of Salt Lake County and a sliver of Summit Park, and he's endorsed the Better Boundaries initiative.
King, minority leader of Democrats in the House, says the effect of gerrymandering is most starkly seen in the state's Congressional districts, where Salt Lake County is split between three U.S. Representatives. This "cracking" system of redistricting differs from other, more racially and politically diverse states like North Carolina and Pennsylvania where courts have ruled against systems of "packing" voters into districts by their ethnicity.
King said he's not aware of any legislation that seeks to usurp the initiative.
The only U.S. House district in Utah not including a slice of Salt Lake County is the 1st District, which includes all of Summit County.
Rep. Logan Wilde, a Croydon Republican representing Kimball Junction and much of the Snyderville Basin in the state House, oversees a district stretching from the Idaho border to Colorado. He said that, while he applauds the initiative's intent, he doesn't know how it would account for Utah's explosive population growth.
According to the Census Bureau, Utah is the third-fastest growing state in the country.
Wilde also doubts the true nonpartisan nature of such a commission, but thinks the proposal itself has good ideas the Legislature could use.
"I think the question is will they actually come with the outcomes that this group is looking for," Wilde said. "I don't believe it will. I don't support just creating another commission."
Brantley Eason, the chair of the Summit County Republican Party, has concerns with some of the criteria laid out for appointees to the proposed commission.
Ralph Becker and Jeff Wright, co-chairs of Better Boundaries, said in a statement that they're confident the standards laid out in the initiative will enable a committee independent of political influence.
"When politicians can draw their own districts for their own self-interest, they create noncompetitive races and that harms our communities," the statement said. "One key piece of the Better Boundaries initiative is that it includes standards for drawing districts that ensure the process serves the best interests of the voters, not the politicians themselves."